‘Books’ Posts

Book Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Though subtitled “Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago,” this concise and fascinating piece of social history by no means requires a familiarity with the Bob Fosse musical. It’s about crime in Chicago. It’s an effective portrait of the golden age of newspaper reporting. It’s a multiple character study. But more than anything it’s about the cult of celebrity. We tend to think idol-worshipping exploded in the late twentieth century, but it ran rampant in the 1920s, juiced up by the many competing newspapers that once graced major cities — and nowhere more so than in the Second City.

There, during Prohibition, a crop of female killers became celebrities. Maurine Watkins, a talented greenhorn reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covered the trials, filing incisive and sarcastic reports that made her a popular correspondent. Disgusted by the way all-male juries kept acquitting glamorous female criminals, Watkins then wrote a successful play based on her reporting. The stage play Chicago established her career (though she never again matched its success). Two movie versions followed. The first was silent; the second starred Ginger Rogers but bastardized the story to comply with the morality code of the 1940s, which didn’t allow characters to commit bad behavior and get away with it.

Not until after Watkins had died, though, did the Bob Fosse musical come about. Its current Broadway production has become the longest-running revival in Broadway’s history, and between that, the tours, and the Best Picture-winning 2002 movie version of the musical, an awful lot of people know the story, however obscure the original play may be today. But you need not know it at all to get a lot out of this book.

Perry neatly tracks the stories that splashed across the front pages of the Chicago papers in 1924. “Beautiful” Beulah Annan, immortalized in the play as Roxie Hart, and sophisticated Belva Gaertner, the inspiration for the character of Velma, were only the most glamorous of a number of female prisoners who had murdered men, usually lovers or husbands. Perry’s account of their crimes and their trials shines a light on the attitudes of the time, so different from now. Women weren’t thought fit to serve on juries — they couldn’t be objective enough. And they weren’t tough enough to be trial lawyers, though the book also profiles a trailblazing young attorney named Helen Cirese who successfully represented the unglamorous convict Sabella Nitti.

For similar reasons, many people believed women couldn’t commit crimes unless something — drink, passion, the loose living that was blamed for so many problems at the time — had led them astray. “Violence, after all, was an unnatural act for a woman. A normal woman couldn’t decide to commit murder or plot a killing…The violent woman was by definition mentally diseased, irreparably defective.” Beulah had been “lured into the world of jazz and liquor, had broken her marriage vows, like so many young married women forced by financial necessity to work outside the home.” A “respectable lady [like Belva Gaertner] who shot her husband or boyfriend…didn’t scare men: She was a romantic figure, a representation of how much women in general, with their overflowing emotions, loved and needed their men.”

Maurine Watkins, intelligent, moral, and religious, couldn’t accept this, and crusaded in print for the women she believed guilty to get what they deserved. But, though the string of acquittals had been broken in another case, both Beulah and Belva got off despite strong evidence against them. In the process, even their lawyers became celebrities. Hearst’s sensationalizing papers, according to Perry, “sought to mold news to their liking, which meant the commonplace blown up bigger and better than in any of their competitors.” The “commonplace blown up”…just like today’s reality shows. Tens of thousands of strangers swarmed upon the funeral of Wanda Stopa, another beautiful killer who’d avoided trial by committing suicide — “group madness, a sight so incredible, it stayed with the reporter for years.” It led Watkins from Chicago to Chicago, “a deeply cynical satire of the celebrity mania that she saw as the dominant feature of twentieth-century urban life.” Perry’s analysis of the play’s genesis sums up both its theme and, to a degree, that of this book:

From her experiences as a reporter in Chicago, she’d determined that human imperfections, individual and collective, had become monstrous. Real life had become farce…traditional comedy and farce…comedy and tragedy…were all one and the same in a superficial modern world of mass communication and overpopulated, spirit-crushing cities, a world that produced anonymous men and women seized by insecurity and a frantic desire for money, status, and attention.

We know how straight-laced society reacts. From Mae West’s 1927 conviction for doing a “kootchie dance,” through Jim Morrison’s 1969 arrest in Miami for exposing himself, to the bizarre excoriation of Janet Jackson for her “wardrobe malfunction,” America has always been an uncomfortable mix of the puritanical and the freewheeling and licentious.

Maurine never wanted her play made into a musical. Perry isn’t sure why, but he makes a convincing case against a commonly supposed reason: that she’d become a born-again Christian and ashamed of having sensationalized the lurid stories she’d reported on. Maurine Watkins was religious all her life; she was never “born again.” And she hadn’t sensationalized and glamorized the murderesses; to the contrary, she’d tried her hardest to turn the tide against Beulah and Belva. This book, among its other accomplishments, restores and buttresses the reputation of Maurine Watkins, who for a brief shining moment was the top crime reporter of her day, and then turned her experiences into a bitter, cynical, but eternally fresh and powerful piece of our culture.

Originally published as “Book Review: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Maybe it ought to go without saying that one should go to the theater prepared to pay attention. But it doesn’t anymore, not when screen-conditioned young people no longer have the attention span to serve on a jury. So, fair warning: Potomac Theatre Project’s current production of The Barker Poems—two long poems by Howard Barker read as dramatic monologues—requires sustained attention. It’s shy of an hour long, but that’s a fair stretch when close listening is mandatory. This isn’t a production that will hit you over the head and drag you along with it. Don’t go sleepy; you’ll need your serious brain to meet Barker’s serious language.

Primarily a playwright, Barker proves a really fine dramatic poet as well. To start, the wondrous Robert Emmet Lunney performs “Gary the Thief,” which follows said thief through an epic series of existential adventures as he’s arrested and imprisoned. “I live among you/Hating you,” he addresses us; “I charm you/With the ease of one who holds/All effort in contempt.” Mr. Lunney’s performance does indeed seem effortless. Breezed from mood to mood by subtle, perfect lighting (Hallie Zieselman) and directed deftly by Richard Romagnoli, Lunney makes Gary a delightful, philosophical, and slightly dangerous rascal. A bit of a low-class Ulysses, he rises above and burrows below what regular folks seem to expect of him: “I ride History lightly as a leaf/On torrents which wash away the/Gates of prisons and of parks.”

Ultimately he seems to experience a kind of revelation, or passion, but his consistent sureness of himself keeps the ending ambiguous: if Gary can’t learn (“I did this for knowledge/But nothing came of it”), can he overcome? Is there anything to overcome? Perhaps only our skepticism about him. About whether by himself he can sustain our rapt interest for half an hour and take us somewhere we’ve not been before. Mission accomplished.

The second poem, “Plevna,” comes to us through the rapid-fire delivery of Alex Draper, who was so fine as Alan Turing in Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Subtitled “Meditations on Hatred,” the work is named for a Bulgarian city that was the site of a long siege in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, but Plevna stands in for all sites where the horrors of war rear up. Jarringly, our narrator has just stepped away from a cocktail party. Still nursing his drink, he brings us various points of view: “The hem of his [the priest's] cassock is stained/From the blood of horses…The emperor witnessed the decimation/From a platform made of planks…[Alexander] will not see death in such abundance/Or pain in such garlands again…” And the Sultan “is silent/Staring across the Straits/A cruiser made in South Shields unzips the placid pond.”

It’s a disturbing, at times bewildering ride, and in the end less successful as a piece of drama than “Gary.” It’s true that Mr. Draper, while bringing great liveliness to his performance, occasionally swallows a line. But in essence it’s not the fault of the performer or the crew. I think it’s simply that we read of war every day. We’re bombarded with new and old knowledge of atrocities here, there, and everywhere, world without end. We simply don’t need this, even from as great a writer as Barker, as much as we need the individual and irreproducible meta-yarns of Everyman-oddities like Gary the Thief, which can challenge our stodgy ways of looking at our violent and beautiful world.

What we do need, though, is more thought-provoking theater like this. As I said, don’t go sleepy. But go. The Barker Poems ran in repertory through August 1.

Photo by Stan Barouh


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”” at Blogcritics.

Book Review: Neil Young: Long May You Run by Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

When Neil Young and Crazy Horse played at Jones Beach some years ago on the Horde Tour — it appears to have been 1997, as I am reminded by one of the countless concert posters reproduced in this new book — the "Dreamin' Man" was more of a "Complainin' Man." And what was he complaining about? Us. We, the audience, weren't appreciating the music enough, or so Neil thought.

I was having a fine time at what seemed to me a great concert. I'd never seen this god of rock live before and boy was I impressed. But what did I know?

Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff open their new illustrated history, Neil Young: Long May You Run, with a similar anecdote from 1983. Young was expected to play a second set with the Shocking Pinks, the rockabilly group he'd recently put together. Instead he played two acoustic numbers and called it a night, later explaining to his father, "That crowd didn't deserve the Shocking Pinks!"

A betrayal of the performer-audience contract? Conventionally speaking, yes — the artist is supposed to give his all for the crowd, do the best he can, that's what he's paid for. But Neil Young has never been a conventional artist, as the authors concisely document in their new book. "Neil Young does not explain," they write. "He simply does."

As a biography, the book is brief and breezy (yet occasionally repetitive). It gives an outline of the life (so far) of Neil Young, rocker, with glimpses of Neil Young, family man and human being. It's written well, and well-organized — chronologically, but with sidebars on particular topics, including interesting stuff like the history of CSNY and the making of "Ohio," and less fascinating material like Young's female collaborators and his relationahip with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sprinkled throughout are quotes from a pantheon of famous rockers, most of whom aren't very articulate about why Neil was important to them — but then, what makes Neil Young a crucial and unique figure is something that goes a bit deeper than words. One thing the book does stress is his unwillingness to compromise or to repeat himself, traits which really do make him unique.

Of course, no book can convey the sounds that made Neil Young the icon he remains today. But this one does an excellent job of documenting his career visually, and it will probably be an essential buy for any Neil Young completist. It will also make a nice addition to the bookshelf or coffee table of anyone who appreciates the great innovators of rock and roll.

In terms of what the book bills itself as — "The Illustrated History" — it delivers, housing a treasure trove of color photos and reproductions of posters, LP and single covers (including many international rarities), even tickets and backstage passes. In the back it offers an extensive discography, a filmography, and information about Young's most important sidemen.

Best for browsing through and absorbing its plethora of images, it's also readable. Hard to ask for much more in this kind of book.


Originally published as “Book Review: Neil Young: Long May You Run by Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff” on Blogcritics.

Book Review: Selected Stories by Stefan Zweig

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

My review of Pushkin Press’s Selected Stories by Stefan Zweig has been published on Blogcritics.

Reading. It’s what’s for dinner.

Theater: Homer’s Odyssey

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Handcart Ensemble should be congratulated for much about this production, and not least for seriously telling the story of the Odyssey – in most of its rough essentials anyway – in under three hours. The acting is very good and the production inventive and engaging, but playwright-poet Simon Armitage’s text, originally written for a BBC radio production, is the biggest star, simultaneously elevated and gutbucket, Homeric and homespun. Shadow puppets, glorious costumes, haunting songs, a chilling trip to Hades, and an old-fashioned, barrel-chested, egotistical hero just like they used to make ‘em (David D’Agostini is Ulysses) – this show’s got just about everything. The galumphing puppets are a trip, too. Closes Oct. 18.

Theater Review: Emily by Chris Cragin

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

It can't be easy to create a drama about a famous recluse like Emily Dickinson, but playwright Chris Cragin and director Steve Day give it the old Amherst try with Emily. The play aims to illuminate the spinster poet's self-circumscribed life through dramatizing family scenes during her late teens and twenties.

It begins unpromisingly, with the cast clumping about constructing the set for the first scene, then introducing their characters in a sequence that's meant to be enveloping but comes across as too precious. The stylized quality of this prologue extends through much of the play, and while it does help convey the distance Emily establishes between herself and the rest of the world, it also curtails our engagement with the story. In spite of the graceful cast and their lush costumes, Mr. Day doesn't develop much of interest to look at on stage; the slow pace sometimes sinks into ennui rather than expanding into stateliness.

The play comes to life in certain amusing scenes, and it boasts some good performances, notably the finely calibrated, unsentimental yet touching portrayal of the poet by Elizabeth A. Davis. At one point, Emily's teacher, Mr. Williamson (an earnest, composite character somewhat overplayed by Christopher Bonewitz) tells Emily he has submitted one of her poems anonymously to a journal, and it has been accepted. "I don't know why I'm crying," Emily confesses in a poignant, perfect little moment that shines a pinpoint light on her character.

Another such moment, a more obvious one, crowns the play's liveliest scene: the young Emily, her siblings, and her friend Newton (Mr. Bonewitz again, here very funny) are reading from Romeo and Juliet, and the girls go on to discuss which suitor they'd choose. Emily makes an absurd selection. In her late teens, she hasn't yet retreated into her somber white cloud, but she's already a girl apart.

Ms. Davis also recites Dickinson's poetry very sweetly, and if nothing else, seeing this play will remind you (or teach you for the first time) of the great beauty of these poems. Certain lines of some of the poems are read in unison by more than one character, which I found distracted from the sense of the lines, though my companion appreciated its musicality. Other quibbles: Jenny Ledel is good as Emily's sister-in-law Sue, but Sue's lower-class origin is one of a number of potentially dramatizing factors that are spoken of but could have been taken better advantage of to make the play more engrossing. Also, though Ms. Ledel is a talented young actress, giving her a pair of granny glasses and a shawl doesn't convincingly transform her into Emily's aging mother.

In short, this modestly diverting play partially succeeds in bringing Emily Dickinson to life, but more through the lead performance and the poetry itself than through the play's conception or realization. I can't deny that it succeeded in sending me home to crack open my copy of Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems.

Emily runs through Sept. 27 at Theatre Row.

Photo: Firebone Theatre

Book Review: Wondrak and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, Translated by Anthea Bell

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Some literature — Shakespeare, Dickinson, Faulkner — feels timeless, as if retrofitted with a few new surface details it could have been written yesterday and not decades or centuries ago. Wondrak and Other Stories, by the early 20th century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, is of another sort: though it deals with eternal themes — war and peace, the state vs. the individual — it reads, today, as if blanketed in a layer of naiveté.

By that I don't mean ignorance of the world; quite the opposite. It is an un-modern lack of irony that marks these stories as unlike those of most modern writers. In "In the Snow" ("Im Schnee"), the brief first story in this collection of three, the very youthful Zweig, a non-observant Jew, tells of a group of medieval Jewish families who flee their village ahead of what would centuries later be called a pogrom. But these Jews are not well-rounded characters; rather they are almost symbolically simple avatars of persecution and gloom. Even singing a celebratory Chanukah song, "the singing echoes like a hopeless lament, and is blown away on the wind." Even before we learn their fate, Zweig has let us know that for these Jews there can be no redemption – not even, it seems, in their own hearts.

"In the Snow" is a very early work; the mature Zweig was capable of much more nuance. Even so, "Compulsion" ("Der Zwang"), the long story at the center of the collection, has a discomfiting up-front quality, as if we're being compelled to press our faces against the glass and experience the story literally rather than reclining to watch the show in comfort.

Ferdinand, a peace-loving artist, has fled to Switzerland with his wife Paula to avoid being drafted into the German army during World War I. Nonetheless he receives a summons to service. Though he and Paula have agreed to take a principled, intellectually rigorous stand against any such conscription, in the event he feels compelled to answer the call, much as he wants to resist. It is an almost Jamesian tale of complex psychology, not just ideas.

This was an order that would not be denied. Somehow he felt himself wavering; that unknown sensation was back. His hands began to shake. His strength faded. Cold came from somewhere, like a draught of wind blowing around him, uneasiness returned, inside him the steel clockwork of the alien will began to stir, tensing all his nerves and making its way to his joints. Instinctively he looked at his watch.

Like Hans Castorp at the end of The Magic Mountain, Ferdinand's fate is left uncertain, though we are given room to hope for both his physical and his mental survival. The final tale lacks certainty for another reason: Zweig never finished it. Wondrak is titled after a minor character, a local functionary charged with assisting the authorities in locating young men avoiding the draft. The story recounts the life of a disfigured woman, Ruzena, who is now trying to hide her only son, Karel.

It's a tale of large cruelties and small mercies. Zweig left it off with Ruzena and her son both jailed, awaiting his transport off to war. Knut Beck, an earlier editor of Zweig, suggested that perhaps the author felt the story couldn't have been published because of its subject matter and therefore didn't finish it. I think it's just as likely that he quit because he'd written himself into a corner.  Either way, again there is no irony; though certain characters may have psychological depth, what actually occurs is plainly motivated and sensible, at least within the twisted sensibility of war. We do, however, wish we knew what became of Ruzena, having dwelt with her for some 33 pages.

I suspect Pushkin Press's earlier Zweig release, Amok & Other Stories, might be a better introduction to the author. But this volume has piqued my interest in reading more from a writer who was one of the most successful of his time but is largely unknown today in the English-speaking world. I was a little disappointed to spot several typos, after finding the same publisher's edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets such a model of small-print perfection. But Pushkin's unique and rather artistic small softcover format remains appealing.

Book Review: The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

London's East End, the 1950s, winter. A thick yellow smog keeps the local doctors busy treating respiratory problems; elderly folks die by the hundreds. But Conchita Warren, pregnant for the 25th (yes, the 25th) time, has suffered a fall and gone into labor two months early.

The young midwife who has been providing Conchita's prenatal care receives the late-night call, and bicycles through the soupy cloud of pollution to tend to her charge. Jenny is an experienced midwife by now, but has never had to deal with a premature birth. The mother is very sick; the baby is born successfully, tiny but alive. Finally doctors arrive and order the baby transferred to hospital, but Conchita won't let go of the minute infant. No amount of pressure can pry her hand off it, and her husband, Len, takes her side.

This is but one of many dramatic episodes ("adventures" wouldn't be an inaccurate term) recounted by Jennifer Worth in her absorbing, eye-opening, wise, touching, and sometimes suspenseful memoir of life as a nurse-midwife in the poor parts of London in the postwar years. Times were tough and crime always threatened, but unlike policemen, who patrolled in pairs for "mutual protection… we nurses and midwives are always alone, on foot or bicycle. We would never be touched. So deep is the respect, the reverence, of the roughest, toughest docker for the district midwives that we can go anywhere alone, day or night, without fear."

And they had to. Jenny visits bombed-out buildings, condemned many years before but still inhabited by the dirt-poor. She encounters women who've been abused by husbands, by pimps, and by the infamous workhouses, and ravaged by illnesses ranging from rickets to eclampsia. Yet moments of amazing grace shed a different light on the human condition: a first-time father has an unexpected reaction to his new baby's suspiciously dark skin; a young boy befriends a clumsy, socially inept midwife, gallantly defending her against ridicule; Jennifer discerns the startling secret to Conchita and Len's everlasting, unconditional love. And as the young agnostic grows to respect the nuns who run the midwives' practice, she inches towards a religious revelation.

Ms. Worth's prose is only workmanlike, but all her stories are interesting, and for every episode of fascinating but technical medical reporting (I learned a lot about birthin' babies from this book), there's a recollection or reflection that achieves a kind of literary transcendence. Of Mrs. Jenkins, a ragged old woman who magically appears in the street wherever a birth is about to occur, Ms. Worth writes:

She stepped over the edge of the big tin bath and sat down in the water with delight, splashing and giggling like a little girl. She picked up the flannel and sucked the water noisily, looking up at me with smiling eyes. The room was warm because I had stoked up the fire, and a cat strolled up and looked curiously over the edge of the bath. She splashed him in the face with a giggle, and he retreated, offended. The front door banged, and she looked up sharply. "Rosie, that you? Come 'ere, girl, an' look a' yer ol' mum. It's a rare sight."

But the footsteps went upstairs, and Rosie didn't come.

The nuns themselves are among the most interesting characters: ancient crazy-like-a-fox Sister Monica Joan; bustling, foul-mouthed Sister Evangelina; saintly Sister Julienne. Worth's exact recounting of dialogue, and her detailed descriptions of scenes that were only told to her by others (and decades ago at that), feel suspiciously detailed. But if she has recreated, it all feels apt; everything in this book is vividly believable, and often gripping.  Even the appendix on cockney dialect was no exception; I began to read it dutifully but finished it wishing for more. It will surely be appreciated by any American who's tried to fight through an episode of Eastenders.

A great success in England, this book deserves just as much appreciation on the west side of the pond. Jennifer Worth's tales of a half century ago lose nothing with transplantation to modern times; society really hasn't changed all that much. And they will resonate with anyone who ever had a heart.

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

In the hands of a great craftsperson, a humble volume of story and prayer may be re-conceived as a priceless illuminated masterpiece. Witness the Sarajevo Haggadah, a centuries-old volume now counted as one of the most valuable books in the world.

Similarly, in the hands of a fine writer, a slim set of facts about an unusual object can become a powerful and absorbing historical novel. Witness People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March.

The dramatic history of the Sarajevo Haggadah rivals the beauty of its illuminations. Produced in Spain in the 14th century by an unknown artisan, the Haggadah somehow survived the book-burnings of the Inquisition, and was eventually spirited to the thriving Jewish community of Venice. From there, it found its way to Vienna, where, in the 19th century, it was rebound.

Eventually it came to rest to Sarajevo, where (thanks to a brave librarian) it survived Nazi pillaging and now holds pride of place as one of the Bosnian capital's great treasures. But although careful study has revealed much about the Haggadah's provenance, it continues to hold many secrets. From these facts and these secrets, Brooks has woven a fascinating, richly imagined fiction.

Her new novel, People of the Book, works backwards in history. To carry the Haggadah through the centuries, she creates a series of plausibly imagined heroes and scenarios, starting with the horrors of the Holocaust and reaching, finally, all the way back to a beautifully imagined tale of the book's creation.

Framing and setting up the historical sections of the novel is the story of a modern-day book conservator who is pursuing a series of clues, each from a different episode in the Haggadah's odyssey. Hanna Heath's life is something of a soap opera itself. Her adventures in scholarship lead her to international intrigue, romance, and even a secret-princess revelation worthy of a fairy tale.

As Hanna turns into a modest and reluctant action hero, the book as a whole begins to resemble a cross between James Michener's The Source and an Indiana Jones adventure. And I mean both of those in the best possible way.

Hanna's globe-trotting pursuit of the Haggadah's secrets works well as a framing device, but it is in the historical sections that Brooks' storytelling ripens from merely good to transcendent. Each section evokes a colorful, thoroughly believable, emotionally convincing world peopled by complex human beings bathed in vices, diseases, and emotions – all in the space of a short story.

Brooks' writing transports us into these worlds almost as completely as her invented 15th century scribe, David Ben Shoushan, is transported by the marvelous pictures he is incorporating into the Haggadah.

It was in the still of the early hours, when the stars blazed in the black sky, that it happened. His fasting, the chill, the brilliant flare of the lamp: suddenly the letters lifted and swirled into a glorious wheel. His hand flew across the parchment. Every letter was afire. Each character raised itself and danced spinning in the void. And then the letters merged into one great fire, out of which emerged just four, blazing with the glory of the Almighty's holy name. The power and the sweetness of it were too much for Ben Shoushan, and he fainted.

Hanna's own revelations, the personal and the professional, aren't as mystical as that. But she's good company, as Brooks spirits us through the ages on this most excellent adventure.

Book Review: Wandering Star by J. M. G. Le Clézio

Thursday, November 13th, 2008

What to do with the weight of expectations? The French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio is not well known in the English-speaking world, and many of us might never have heard of him had he not been awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Now we have had the pleasure of that introduction, but because of the prize, we also feel the burden of expecting greatness.

Greatness probably can't be ascribed to any author based on the reading of one fairly short book. Nonetheless, Le Clézio's 2004 novel Wandering Star is unquestionably a work of power and beauty even in this suboptimal translation.

It tells the story of Esther/Hélène, a girl from a secular Jewish family forced by the Nazi invasion to flee their home in Nice. In the countryside, in a small village, under the dubious protection of the less-murderous Italian military, she comes of age.

Eventually Esther reaches Israel, where she encounters Nejma, a Palestinian refugee her own age. We read Nejma's story in a separate section, but the contrast between the trajectories of the two lives is clear, and crushing.

Having borne many trials but escaped the full horror of the Final Solution, Esther has arrived at her promised land. Israel's War for Independence is raging, and it seems life for her is an endless whirl of destruction, yet she is a survivor. But in order for the Jewish refugees to establish their homeland, another people – Nejma's – is uprooted and transformed into refugees themselves, persecuted in their turn not by murderous armies bent on genocide – though plenty die in battle – but by starvation and disease. Though the two girls meet but once, their dual stories comprise a singular tale of the nightmare of war, and the promise – and tragedy – of human migrations.

The translation has problems. Not having the original French in front of me, I don't know to what extent the translator, C. Dickson, has adhered to Le Clézio's French sentence constructions. But whether from too-literal rendering, or carelessness, or some other reason, too many sentences must be read twice. The reason is nonstandard punctuation, primarily the use of commas to create run-on sentences, and other careless constructions: "Elizabeth had followed her into the bushes, she caught up with her on the bank of the river, breathless, her legs scratched from the brambles."

The poetry of the writing blasts through nonetheless, even in passages such as the above. It burns down like the desert heat beating down on Nejma as she passes her days in a refugee camp at what feels like the end of the world. In the following passage, Nejma, who has grown up by the sea but now languishes in the dry, dusty camp, has just witnessed a young pregnant woman being bathed, her "long braids twirled around on her back like wet snakes."

Outside the sun was still dazzling. The camp was heavy with dust, with silence. Before nightfall, I was up on top of the hill, my ears filled with the sounds of water and the droning voice of the old woman. Perhaps I had stopped seeing the camp through the same eyes. It was as if everything had changed, as if I had just arrived, as if I were unfamiliar with the stones, the dark houses, the horizon obstructed by the hills, the dried-up valley scattered with scorched trees where the sea never comes.

Through Esther's life story and Nejma's, Le Clézio bathes even the muddy or humdrum moments in muted light like this. Yet the girls' suffering is almost palpable, both Nejma's physical destitution and Esther's literal and psychological displacement. Esther lives on, a survivor; Nejma's fate remains cloudy. But having read their stories, so different and so similar, we are left with one rock-solid truth: there is no simple right or wrong.

And there is a second truth, this one buried in the author's way of telling itself.  It's Keats's youthful truth, that beauty is truth and truth beauty. This truth, carried to us on the wings of great art and literature, can survive the worst of times – however unexpectedly.

Theater Review (NYC): Oh, Whistle…: Two Ghost Stories by M R James

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

Starting this year, I'm adopting my Left Coast colleague Bob Machray's tradition of attending a Halloween-themed performance every Samhain season. I'm happy to report that my new custom has begun robustly, with a delightfully diverting evening spent in the company of Mr. R M Lloyd Parry. A marvelous reader and actor, this gentleman simply sits in a chair, surrounded by the leathery accoutrements of a bookish professor's study, and tells us two spooky supernatural tales by M R James, the great writer of English ghost stories.

Professor James, who lived from 1862 to 1936, was a master of English prose. His sentences weave patterns both elegant and forceful, often taking unexpected turns into obscure, frightening, or funny corners of the supernatural and the psychological. Listening to Mr. Parry read "The Ash Tree" and "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" brought me back to my first, youthful plunge into Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles." It also brought to mind the dark imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, although Poe's American characters are far more rough-and-ready than James's tweedy dons and landed gentry.

Parry starts with an avuncular mien but can also grow spectral before our very eyes, especially with the stage lit only by a few candles. (A tiny bit of stage lighting would have illuminated his face a little more without spoiling the effect.) He makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and tap into your childish sense of wonder. The technique and staging – a solo performer who both narrates and brings multiple characters to life in order to tell a taut but wild story – also recalls Patrick Stewart's wonderful solo performances of A Christmas Carol.

When Patrick Stewart brings a show to America, of course, it's bound for a Broadway stage. Oh, Whistle is being performed in the 30-seat black-box space at the 78th Street Theatre Lab. And the theater was not full. There are four more performances of this award-winning show (it won The Dracula Society's Hamilton Deane Award for best dramatic presentation in the Gothic genre, no less). Nov. 5th through the 8th are your last chances.

Go, fill up this tiny place, and make some noise while ye may. Soon enough the spookiness of the Halloween season will be gone, and in its place the sugary and far less evocative homeyness of Thanksgiving. Don't let Thanksgiving happen to you! Not, anyway, without first immersing yourself in the spooky mind of M R James, the master of the English ghost story.


Oh, Whistle…: Two Ghost Stories by M R James is directed and performed by R M Lloyd Parry. The final four performances run from Nov. 5-8 at 7:30 PM. On Nov. 7 there is an additional 10 PM performance of two different stories. Purchase tickets online or call 212-362-0329. Visit the Nunkie Theatre Company's website for more information on Mr. Parry's performances.

Book Review: Capote in Kansas – A Ghost Story by Kim Powers

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Capote in Kansas is newly available in paperback, and I jumped at the chance to read it because it's about Truman Capote, one of my favorite writers, and his friendship with Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the novel, Kim Powers starts with some basic facts and incidents in the lives of the two great writers and constructs a fictional, fantastical tale of what might have transpired between them during Capote's last days. Unfortunately, what might have been a lovely and haunting story collapses under the double-team pressure of mawkishness and bad writing.

It's well known that the two writers spent summers together as children, and that in her masterwork To Kill a Mockingbird Lee based the character Dill Harris on Capote. What may be a little less well known is that Lee accompanied Truman when he traveled to Kansas to research the horrendous Clutter murders for his groundbreaking true-crime book, In Cold Blood. Combining facts, speculation, and his own inventions, Powers weaves a tale of ghostly visitations, strange obsessions, long-nursed grudges, long distance communication, and the secret dreams and nightmares of great but frustrated writers.

It's rich material to work with, but lazy writing and sloppy thinking sabotage Powers' efforts. What is one to make of a paragraph like this, which begins with a pleasing poetic image but then explodes into an incomprehensible mess:

[The p]hotos [were] so gruesome she had tried to turn their reality into vague, abstract shapes: turn pools of blood into fluid circles on a field of black and white, turn bodies and faces into geometry, not people whose names she now knew, who had been spared no dignity in death – and no further dignity as she and Truman bore witness to the last, and most intimate, moment of their lives.

Powers also has an annoying habit of trying to draw cheap dramatic effect from piling on one-sentence paragraphs:

     The coroner had to admit he had never been shot to death, so couldn't honestly describe how it felt.
     And that's what Truman wanted: honesty.
     That thing in death, their deaths, that he had never had in his life.

It this were a story about fictional characters, I might have been able to overlook some of its stylistic failings; one can forgive flawed writing when it's employed in the service of a ripping yarn. But Powers is writing about two monumental figures of 20th century American prose, and while we don't demand that a writer giving us a version of such people should be able to match their abilities, we should at least be reminded of why we love their work – and reminded by evocation, not sad comparison.

Book Review: The Likeness by Tana French

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Amid the sprawl of the crime fiction genre, Tana French has mapped out a subcategory in which the detectives get emotionally involved in their cases and things blow up in their faces. In French's Ireland, just as in the real one, the cops may get their man, and they may not; a good yarn is a good yarn either way.

In The Likeness, just as in her first book, In the Woods, the particulars of an unusual murder draw a detective in so closely that solving the case becomes far trickier than the police might have imagined. Here, our heroine and narrator is Cassie Maddox, erstwhile partner of the last book's Detective Rob Ryan. In the aftermath of that book's harrowing events, Cassie is off the Murder squad and working Domestic Violence. (The traumatized Rob is out of the picture). But Cassie's old line of work beckons when the body of a young woman turns up – a woman who not only looks just like Cassie, but had adopted the identity of Lexie Madison, a fictional junkie Cassie had "played" during an undercover operation years before.

Cooking up a story that the victim actually survived her stabbing, Cassie's manipulative former Undercover boss convinces her (with the very reluctant OK of her Murder-squad boyfriend, the devoted Sam) to enter the bosom of the "Lexie"'s old life, specifically the academic circle of her eccentric housemates, and pretend to be the recovering victim while trying to suss out what happened to the murdered imposter.

Preposterous? Pretty much. But once we've bought in to the premise (and plowed through a rather too long set-up), French delivers a giddy, suspenseful ride. Is one of the housemates the killer, and if so, how much danger is Cassie in? What will happen if her cover is blown? What weird bond holds the housemates almost cultishly together? Might the killer be one of the locals, whose resentment of Whitethorn House and its owners goes back generations? Or could it be the disappointed relation who wished to inherit the house and turn the property into condos?

Real estate plays a significant role in the plots of both of French's mysteries to date, and that's not a coincidence. She's a keen observer of Ireland's dizzyingly rapid modernization and the painful conflicts that arise between traditional interests and those fueled by the country's economic boom.

Both books also delve into the complex psychology and procedure of police work.

The cold fact is that every murder I've worked was about the killer. The victim… was just the person who happened to wander into the sights when the gun was loaded and cocked. The control freak was always going to kill his wife the first time she refused to follow orders; your daughter happened to be the one who married him. The mugger was hanging around the alleyway with a knife, and your husband happened to be the next person who walked by… if we can figure out the exact point where someone walked into those crosshairs, we can go to work with our dark, stained geometries and draw a line straight back to the barrel of the gun.

Most readers, myself included, won't know enough about police work to tell whether all of Cassie's observations ring true, but French makes them feel real as rain. And she's good with noirish metaphors. "The words sent a slim knife of something like homesickness straight through me." "Lexie blew down the grass like a silver shower of wind, she rocked in the hawthorn trees and balanced light as a leaf on the wall beside me, she slipped along my shoulder and blazed down my back like fox fire." The dead Lexie, who wasn't even Lexie, comes to creepy life as brightly as any of the living characters in Cassie's intrigued and eventually obsessed mind.

But in spite of its unlikely plot, this is a more satisfying book than In the Woods (which you needn't read before this one, though it is enjoyable and would provide a bit of context). The Likeness has more richly drawn characters, a more satisfying conclusion, and most important, a more sympathetic and believably complex narrator. Maybe with Cassie Maddox the author has found her muse; maybe she'll move on to another lead investigator next time. Either way, she's raised her bar.

Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

This highly regarded mystery, now released as a trade paperback, marks a strong beginning for first-time novelist Tana French. Set in the suburbs of Dublin, In the Woods is a multilayered story that combines the gritty worldliness of a police procedural with the eerie chills of a psychological thriller.

Detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, must find a child-killer who has done his dirty work in the same woods where Ryan, twenty years before, was the sole survivor of a bloody incident that left him with a blanked-out memory. Looming on the horizon: the obliteration of the crime scene by a new highway.

Is the new murder related to the earlier disappearances? Are the anti-highway protesters involved? Will pursuing the case unlock Ryan's memory – and does he really want it unlocked? With both his sanity and his job on the line, this is much more than just another murder case for him, and French artfully maintains the dual layers of suspense.

In Detective Ryan's first-person narration, I detected hints that the author hadn't quite mastered the kind of literary voice one expects of a strapping male heterosexual policeman. There's no reason a sensitive guy can't also be a tough murder detective, but I found some of Ryan's observations and feelings – some of his adjectives, to be precise – a little on the feminine side. Reflecting on himself as a boy, Ryan observes, "that relentless child had never stopped spinning in crazy circles on a tire swing, scrambling over a wall after Peter's bright head, vanishing into the wood in a flash of brown legs and laughter."

However, the psychological depth and observational detail of French's writing bring the story vividly to life. Touches of humor keep the darkness at bay, too. Speaking of Cassie's arrival on the mostly-male murder squad, Ryan observes, "When she finally arrived, she was actually sort of an anticlimax. The lavishness of the rumors had left me with a mental picture of someone on the same TV-drama scale, with legs up to here and shampoo-ad hair and possibly a catsuit."

Cassie turns out to be nothing of the sort, but much more interesting, and the same is true of the book. A traditional mystery in some ways, it's also a thoroughly modern take on the genre, with memorable characters and settings, emotional highs and lows, and a climax that satisfies on some levels while leaving you frustrated on others. Any imperfections in the plot are more than balanced by the fine writing, especially considering this is a first novel. I'm looking forward to French's next book.

[Note: this article has also been published at Blogcritics.org and syndicated to Boston.com.]

Book Review: Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems by John Ashbery

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Over a long and fruitful career John Ashbery has proven what many wouldn't have dared suggest: it is possible for a poet to work in abstractions and also maintain a distinct and resonant voice. Just as an art aficionado knows a Pollock or a Rothko without being told, so does a reader of poetry know an Ashbery without needing to see the name on the cover – or, for that matter, understanding what the poem is about.

"About" is the wrong word anyway. This volume of selected poems (and prose poems) from the nine books Ashbery has published over the past two decades shows that age certainly hasn't slowed this octogenarian's pen; rather, time has broadened his palette, expanding the acreage of his peculiar subject matter. "Of" is a better word than "about" – "of" as in "made of."

What is a poem like "Finnish Rhapsody" made of? In this instance the answer is easy – it's made of two-phrased lines in which the second phrase restates the first.

Don't fix it if it works, tinker not with that which runs apace,
Otherwise the wind might get it, the breeze waft it away.
There is no time for anything like chance, no spare moment for the aleatory,
Because the closing of our day is business, the bottom line already here.

Another "easy" one is "Hotel Lautréamont," which is written in an obscure form called a pantoum, where lines repeat at specific intervals from stanza to stanza. These exceptions still go to prove the rule of Ashberian uniqueness. Their playful tricks suggest the fecund phraseology of ancient epic poetry without taking any specific epic form. We scent a dialogue with Shakespeare, a reflection of ee cummings, a Yeatsian echo, but each poem is never anything less than an Ashbery, though some may be said to be more distinguished than others.

"Offshore Breeze" demonstrates the poet's method succinctly. The first and second stanzas talk of an "I" and a "you" and some things, but no "he." Yet here is the third and final stanza:

What happens is you get the unreconstructed story,
An offshore breeze pushing one gently away,
Not far away. And the leggings of those meeting to
See about it are a sunset,
Brilliant and disordered, and sharp
As a word held in the mouth too long.
And he spat out the pit.

In that sharp last line, and not until then, perspective and metaphor are twisted into a completely new direction. It's startling and moving, without being "about." As Alan Brown put it in the Sunday Times, "Ashbery is still exuberantly dedicated to the truthful rendering of experience as a flow of sensations that defy interpretation."

"The Big Cloud," an exceptionally beautiful lyric that's also from 1987's April Galleons, seems at first to be "about" something. "For ages man has labored to put his dreams in order. Look at the result. / Once an idea like the correct time has been elucidated / It must fade or spread…" Yes, that feels true, philosophically at least. But as the poem delves deeper into the idea, abstractions pile up – "Last words are uttered, and first love / Ascends to its truly majestic position unimpaired." And then, in the final stanza, concrete images elucidate particular lives – "Letters were strewn across the floor, / Singing the joyful song of how no one was ever going to read them." As happens repeatedly in Ashbery's work, objects and ideas take on flesh and personality. The poem ends elegaically:

It was existence again in all its tautness,
Playing its adolescent joke, its pictures
Teasing our notion of fragility with their monumental permanence.
But life was never the same again. Something faltered,
Something went away.

That's about as sentimental as Ashbery gets. Contrast the above with the opening of the title poem, from 1992: "A yak is a prehistoric cabbage: of that, at least, we may be sure." This immediately undercuts any sense of groundedness we may have brought to our reading of the poem. "Still Life with Stranger," from the same volume, ends: "The whole cast of characters is imaginary / now, but up ahead, in shadow, the past waits." This boldly states what is usually unsaid: that these words are not meant as a direct reflection of any reality. A later poem, "The Green Mummies," begins with another perfect example: "Avuncular and teeming, the kind luggage / hosed down the original site."

Always playing, Ashbery writes inexplicable sentences in utterly graceful English. We extract meaning from them a little like we abstract it from music or sculpture. He presents facts and interpretations in tones of great seriousness, but with the subjects drained out. And somehow he makes this weird narrative flow work over the long haul, even through some very lengthy poems. The title poem of 1994's And the Stars Were Shining is like a short story or a movie set in an alien yet familiar universe. The narrator leaps through hoops of images, then pauses to reflect on the creative spirit:

…Some people have an idea a day,
others millions, still others are condemned
to spend their life inside an idea, like a
bubble chamber.

And in the final section comes close to stating a philosophy of art: "It's as though we've come refreshed / from another planet, and spied immediately what was lacking in this one: / an orange, fresh linens, ink, a pen." "The Problem of Anxiety," from 1995's Can You Hear, Bird, asks, "Suppose this poem were about you–would you / put in the things I've carefully left out: / descriptions of pain, and sex, and how shiftily / people behave toward each other?"

Sometimes when Ashbery starts to make too much sense, his poems lose force, as in some of the selections from Can You Hear, Bird. "…By an Earthquake" breaks out of this tendency with its playful form, a series of disconnected vignettes like these: "Albert has a dream, or an unusual experience, psychic or otherwise, which enables him to conquer a serious character weakness and become successful in his new narrative, 'Boris Karloff,'" and "Too many passengers have piled onto a cable car in San Francisco; the conductor is obliged to push some of them off." And the long poem "Tuesday Evening" is made of sometimes Shakespearean rhyming quatrains: "…It's getting late; the pageant / oozes forward, act four is yet to come, and so is dusk." The dada-esque prose poem "The Bobinski Brother," from Your Name Here (2000), could hardly be more different. "'Her name is Liz, and I need her in my biz,' I hummed wantonly. A band of clouds all slanted in the same direction drifted across the hairline horizon like a tribe of adults and children, all hastening toward some unknown destination." And so on.

The visual asserts its importance with the book-length poem "Girls on the Run," inscribed "after Henry Darger," the reclusive folk artist. "…The droplets made diagonal streaks in the air / where pterodactyls had been." But in the final volume represented here, 2005's Where Shall I Wander, Ashbery seems to be looking at politics and war, though, as always, in a skewed way. The prose poem "Heavy Home" closes: "For the time being the disputed enclave is yours. But its cadence is elsewhere." Finally, the short poem "Annuals and Perennials" begins with a discussion of "…this America, home of the free, / colored ashes smeared on the base / or pedestal that flourishes ways of doubting / to be graceful…" and ends with this devastating one-line stanza:

"We have shapes but no power."

By contrast, Ashbery's poems – certainly the best of them, as selected in this volume – come in many shapes, and bear masses of cutting, jostling power.

Book Review: Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll by David Jennings

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Aside from his terrible title pun, the psychologist and media consultant David Jennings is a very smart man, and his book Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll should prove valuable to anyone interested in how people are discovering, and will discover, new music and other media as the digital age progresses. There’s a lot of talk these days about celestial jukeboxes, long tails, folksonomies, the tearable web, “some rights reserved,” and other modern concepts in arts, marketing, and commerce, but Jennings has pulled them neatly into a sensible, readable package dense with ideas and reflecting a very positive outlook.

The internet has enabled us to easily find virtually anything we want. Hence we have, as Jennings says, “what fans used to dream of… Our problem now is scarcity of attention.” The book details what entrepreneurs and thinkers are starting to do, and might yet do, to try to capture and focus the attention of consumers and fans of music, movies, videos, etc., and the new ways in which those fans, through technology and community, are “foraging” for their media sustenance.

I deliberately used both terms, “consumers” and “fans,” because as Jennings makes clear through the use of a pyramid concept that will probably look familiar to marketing managers, there are four types of music listeners: Savants, Enthusiasts, Casuals, and Indifferents. People in these different groups discover new music in various ways. “While Savants [people for whom music is an essential part of their identity, and who often play a creative or leadership role among fans] and Enthusiasts may choose their friends based on what music they like, Casual listeners are more likely to choose their music based on what their friends like.”

The pyramid can also be expressed (top down) as Originators, Synthesizers, and Lurkers. But either way, “communities do not require majority participation in order to be successful and to generate content and relationships that their members find valuable,” and a “cycle of influence” among these groups “can significantly affect the word-of-mouth reputation of a book, film, piece of music, or game.”

Jennings explains the difficulties and the potential for “gatekeepers” who try to generate meaningful popularity “charts” in a context where means and opportunities for distribution and consumption are very inconstant. He also talks about the changing roles of intermediaries like reviewers (in the age of blogs), editors (Last.fm doesn’t have them; the All Media Guides do), and human and automated “DJs.” Regarding the last, Jennings makes the important point, in a chapter called “Cracking the Code of Content,” that “The power to program becomes more important as the range of material available to us on demand keeps on growing.” We use music in a variety of ways – active listening is only one of them – and we have an expanding number of technologies and techniques we can employ to discover music and program personal playlists.

Networking and blogs, he says, “provide the means to reconnect fans and audiences who are rarely listening to or watching the same thing at the same time now that so much is available. The new breed of smart intermediaries will look for ways” to give us the sense of shared experience that the hegemony of Big Media has fostered, and to “enrich…those experiences by adding contextual information and opportunities to communicate or contribute.”

The key strength of this book is Jennings’s strong background in sociology, psychology, and marketing, combined with his understanding of the latest technologies in use, and in development, for the dissemination of media. He creates a neat synthesis of the intersection of human nature and technological trends. It might be too neat, in fact. The “rock ‘n’ roll” part of his title triumvirate refers to human creative energy: personal expression, anti-authoritarianism, sexuality, and the “do-it-yourself ethos” now being expressed in blogs and wikis. But another part of what one might call the “rock ‘n’ roll” spirit is a tendency towards chaos and destruction.

Jennings more than ably presents a wide-angle perspective on technology and media discovery. He acknowledges technological hurdles yet to be overcome, the need to police social networks, and the vulnerability of discovery and recommendation engines to being gamed by the unscrupulous or antisocial. But his analysis mostly ignores political matters like net neutrality, privacy concerns, and censorship, any of which could stomp on the beautiful, networked world of sharing like Godzilla on Bambi. Perhaps that’s a subject for a different book. But it hung over me like a small dark cloud throughout my reading of this one, despite its sunny disposition and smiling forecast for the future of media and popular culture.

Syndicated through Blogcritics to the Advance.net network and Boston.com.

Kudos for Hugos

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

Back in the 1970s, as I avidly read my precious paperback copies of the Isaac Asimov-edited Hugo Award Winners (Volume 1, Volume 2, ad adstra infinitum), I naturally imagined that someday I’d be a great science fiction writer with no dandruff. But I had a much more powerful and urgent dream: that I’d grow up and play in a country-rock band alongside a recipient of a Hugo Award in the Best Professional Editor (Long Form) category. Now, at last, my lifelong dream has come true!

Patrick in Japan

Patrick Nielsen Hayden has won this year’s Hugo for editing some books that were apparently really good. Reading them would be the neighborly thing to do. I must get around to that. However, I’m sure Patrick’s having written “Invisible Hand” for Whisperado must have also had something to do with the award.

Congratulations to Patrick!

Theater Review (NYC): Long Distance

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Long Distance is a new short-story adaptation from The Ateh Theater Group, the team responsible for the recent stage version of Kelly Link’s story “The Girl Detective.” But while that play was gaily zany, the new show – a tryptich of one-acts based on stories by Judy Budnitz – is more of a downer. Tales of decay and death usually are.

The first playlet, Visitors, is the most lighthearted, a quirky and funny tale of family dysfunction that accelerates towards the macabre. The uptight and dreadfully nervous Meredith (Elizabeth Neptune) awaits an impending visit from her parents, who keep calling from the road as they slip into deepening trouble. But the mother (Sara Montgomery) is such a cornpone stereotype that we don’t care much what happens to her, while the increasingly freaked-out Meredith is so mean to her boyfriend Parrish (Jake Thomas) that we find it hard to drum up sympathy for her either. Fortunately, Neptune’s precisely focussed performance and Dunlap’s deadpan direction keep the action tight as it careens towards a jolting finale.

Flush (you can read the original story here) sweetens its gloomy subject matter – breast cancer, and a family in which it runs – with a swirl of absurd humor, and makes its curious point about blurred identities. But despite a touching and perfectly calibrated performance by Diana Lynn Drew as Leah, a fearful mother who turns avoidance into an art form, and solid work from the rest of the cast, it’s ultimately just plain depressing.

Skin Care is sad too, yet it’s the best of the three one-acts. Here Dunlap seems to get the tone just right; perhaps this story simply lends itself most readily to the stage. It’s a fairy tale, really, starring Montgomery as Jessica, a girl who goes away to college but fails to take the advice of her fretful older sister (Neptune again, here taking paralyzing panic to a scary extreme). Naturally Jessica contracts leprosy, with surprising and revelatory results, and Montgomery’s silent scenes with her props of illness are the emotional perigee of the production.

longdistance

In Budnitz’s world, many things aren’t entirely what they seem. When did Parrish suddenly start wearing glasses? Did Leah really see a fish in the toilet? But in this set of adaptations it’s the finale, Skin Care – the one in which the absurdity is essential rather than decorative – that gives us the clearest look into the hearts of the terrified, tyrannical, blood-and-guts-beautiful women who people Judy Budnitz’s unique imagination.

Book Review: The Grand Delusion: The Unauthorized True Story of Styx by Sterling Whitaker

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Where do we get our fascination with seeing the mighty fall? Why do we love to trace on a map the collapse of an empire and to read every painful detail of a hero’s downfall (not to mention a villain’s comeuppance)? It’s not simply schadenfreude. There’s also identification.

People, relationships, and institutions are all subject to the corrosive effects of internal conflict, and internal conflict is interesting. For one thing, it reflects our personal interior fractioning back in our faces. It’s no accident that we turn our bodily ills into societal metaphors and advertising slogans: a company is “hemorrhaging money,” violent crime is “a cancer on society,” a car company wants to be “the heartbeat of America.”

So, while jealousy may explain some of the pleasure we take in others’ failure and misfortune, when we observe the forces that drive organized entities towards chaos, entropy and oblivion we nod in recognition because we ourselves contain – and can just barely contain – those same forces. Even religious people who think there is a supernatural purpose to their existence have an expression for it: “There but for the grace of God…”

Not only do we know in the back of our minds that poverty, paralysis or death could be lurking around any corner, we also seem to need constant reminding that we are not alone in this perilous boat. And it can be especially comforting to see that our heroes, as well as our peers, live on the edge of disaster. That goes some way towards explaining Americans’ obsession with celebrities: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” (Lindsey Lohan, anyone?)

Individual celebrities can be fascinating enough, but bands go them one better, boasting family dysfunction along with human foibles. Watching a band twist and spasm through failure, success, and post-success implosions and hangovers can be like watching a sprawling soap opera. Sterling Whitaker knows this, and in his new book he does a nice job of fitting together his own interviews and previously published sources to tell the story of a complicated band that got precious little respect but enjoyed enormous popularity.

Whitaker’s engrossing, occasionally repetitive book is quite different from Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo‘s memoir, which I reviewed recently here. The latter provided a personal, subjective, inside look at how two teenage brothers and an ambitious young accordion player started a group that soared from playing high school dances in Chicago to becoming one of the most popular bands in North America, with four triple-platinum albums in a row during its peak years. The new book, by contrast, takes a broad view of the band’s history.

Whitaker presents in their own words the recollections of Styx’s managers, label reps, crew, publicist, super-fans, and even a few members, tying the lengthy quotes together with a relatively small amount of narrative text. The format gives the book a raw, unfinished feel, but it’s an effective way of telling the story. Considering that the author had direct access to only one member (Tommy Shaw) of the band’s classic lineup, he does an admirable job presenting the overall picture and the feuding principals’ differing points of view.

Where he is weak is on the very early years of the band. For that, you’ll do better with Panozzo’s book. In fact, Whitaker has almost nothing to say about the Panozzo brothers, though they, together with Dennis DeYoung, started the whole thing. To be sure, John Panozzo, the troubled, volatile drummer, is no longer with us, and Chuck Panozzo, who detailed his years as a closeted homosexual and his battle with AIDS in his own book, hasn’t been the band’s regular bass player in some time. Still, some more background on the early days, and maybe a little less on the late, uncelebrated period, would have given the book more balance.

Styx fans, both hardcore and casual, will surely find the book fascinating, as will students of the music business. Whether it will be of interest to others is less certain. You wouldn’t mistake it for a novel, and it’s rather dense for a soap opera. But Styx’s career and music were always extremely personality-driven, which makes the band’s story unusually interesting. There is much drama in the way the extremely different musical sensibilities of the songwriters DeYoung, Shaw, and James “JY” Young collided and merged in an almost magical way to create a body of work that was so vastly appealing.

In fact, it’s almost startling, given today’s fractured pop music climate, to trace how progressive-rock bombast, syrupy piano ballads, and working-class heartland rock fused into such a popular sound. And I don’t think audiences have really changed that much since Styx’s heyday in the late 1970s – they still, fundamentally, like the same things in their music. But Styx’s roller coaster ride spun the band through a music business that has changed so drastically that today’s aspiring musicians would hardly recognize it. So there’s historical value in the book as well.

The Styx episode of VH1′s Behind the Music a few years ago was so popular that it gave a career boost to the latest incarnation of the band. That version, which continues to work, includes two members who were there for the huge successes – Shaw and Young – along with Lawrence Gowan, Todd Sucherman, and Ricky Phillips. If you go to a Styx show today you will not see a Panozzo brother or a Dennis DeYoung. But that’s the thing about bands – they acquire a life of their own. And concerning the life, the music (good and bad) and the stormy career of the band called Styx – once one of pop music’s biggest acts, and certainly one of its most interesting stories – Whitaker’s detailed and deeply researched book delivers the goods.

Book Review: Our Former Lives in Art – Short Stories by Jennifer S. Davis

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Jennifer S. Davis’s first collection of short stories won the Iowa Short Fiction Award five years ago. It’s been a wait, but fans of the first book won’t be disappointed with the follow-up.

The stories in Our Former Lives in Art shine floodlights on Southern folks in various walks of life. Davis has the gift of unfolding both a setting and the nature of a character – and sometimes of a couple – in few words, while zeroing in on a turning-point moment in the life of a protagonist.

She’s highly aware of the artifice of her work. In “Rapture,” a no-longer-young housewife “invites women over to talk about books with female characters who do similar things until one day their lives are changed by this or that.” In “Pilgrimage in Georgia,” a famous but blocked writer moves to a small town seeking authenticity, only to find that what appears “real” isn’t necessarily what it seems. Often when I start reading a piece of fiction and encounter characters who are writers, I get turned right off, but that didn’t happen here. A protagonist’s profession or educational level doesn’t matter; in these stories, failure and frustration are equal-opportunity employers. Moments of transcendence, rare though they may be, don’t discriminate either.

Often the turning points that quicken these stories involve trust, or the failure thereof. In “Blue Moon,” a young woman named Eva has such trouble facing her feelings that she’s developed an annoying habit of expressing herself in song lyrics. “‘Henry,’ I’d said as he was packing his things. I gave him my mournful stare – the look he’d loved when we still wanted each other bad enough to lie about who we really were. ‘We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.’” When her best friend Misty finds religion and drifts away, Eva reaches a turning point. Interestingly, we don’t find out whether she decides to give Henry another chance. What matters is that we’ve come to know the character, and we’ve witnessed her important moment.

In “Ava Bean,” a home care worker who has lost custody of her daughter reflects on trust: “Until Lucy, Charlotte didn’t understand anything about how the world works, about how one person can shape the course of another’s life as much by absence as anything else, how a stranger’s trust might be the closest thing to salvation you’re ever offered.” Usually Davis gives her characters just the right amount of that sort of rumination. She shows the important stuff, while telling just enough.

Trust is also the main point of “Lily,” in which a social program pairs up a rebellious and cocky teenage girl with a lonely retired man. When Lily asks Alfred what he did before he got sick, he replies, “I reckon the same that I do now. Sit at home and wish I’d done something different.” Davis sums up Lily’s parents’ relationship in another marvel of concision, one among quite a few in the book: “Both of her parents like barbecues, cold beer, Neil Diamond, and bingo. Some stretch this into a marriage, and they did, and then they didn’t.”

Lily’s progression toward trusting Alfred may come a little faster than one might have realistically expected, but the opening story, “Giving Up the Ghost,” is the only one I found unfulfilling. Its premise feels contrived, and I didn’t buy some of the dialogue.

Except for that near-miss, these stories are right on target. They leave one not only admiring the author’s pinpoint writing style but also feeling that one’s understanding of humanity has deepened a bit.

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